9 Reasons Why Are Great Lakes Cruises Are So Expensive (& Tips to Get Cheaper)

Great Lakes cruises are known for being more expensive than ocean cruises, typically costing in the range of $5000 to $10,000

There are a number of reasons for this, but the most important one is that these cruises are limited by the opening and closing times as well as the size of vessel that can pass through the St. Lawrence Seaway.

This means that cruise ships can only travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes during a specific timeframe, typically from March 22nd to December 1st.

Are Great Lakes Cruises Expensive?

As a result, there are fewer cruise ships operating in the Great Lakes region, and those that do are typically much smaller than the mega-ships that ply the oceans. This limited supply means that Great Lakes cruises are more expensive on a per-person basis.

Below we look at these factors in more detail as well as highlight ways you can save money on your Great Lakes cruise.

How Much Does a Great Lakes Cruise Cost?

A Great Lakes cruise typically averages $5,000 per person for a 7 to 10-day trip. However, depending on the cruise line, itinerary, cabin type, inclusions, and season prices can range from $2,000 to $7,000.

As with any cruise you book there are a number of factors that can affect the price, for example, the deck you are on and the size of your chosen suite.

9. Reasons Why Great Lakes Cruises Are So Expensive

So why are the Great Lakes so expensive and do they offer better value than first appears?

1. Short Season

Compared to some ocean and other river cruise itineraries which can be taken year-round, Great Lakes cruises are only possible during a specific timeframe.

The St. Lawrence Seaway, which is a system of canals, channels, and locks which connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, is only roughly open from March 22nd to December 1st each year.

The Great Lakes cruise season is short and cruise lines’ itineraries are mostly in the more popular warmer months of May to September.

This means that cruise ships can only travel to the Great Lakes during this period, and must return to the ocean before the Seaway closes for the winter.

As a result, Great Lakes cruises are only possible for a limited time each year, which contributes to their higher cost because the demand for the cruises can only be met in a shorter space of time.

Lake Superior Coastline
Great Lake Superior Coastline

2. Smaller Ships

Due to the restrictions of the St. Lawrence Seaway, cruise ships that ply the Great Lakes are much smaller than those that ply the ocean.

The vast majority of Great Lakes cruise ships have a capacity of fewer than 400 passengers, with many carrying significantly fewer than this.

In contrast, some of the world’s largest cruise ships can accommodate over 4,000 to 6000 passengers.

The maximum allowed vessel size to get through the St Lawrence Seaway is 740 feet long, 78 feet wide, and 26 feet deep and many of the Great Lake cruise ships are specifically built with these measurements in mind.

Whereas the smallest Carnival ships are 855ft and Royal Caribbean ships are typically all over 867 ft, way too big to get through.

Economies of scale come into play when looking at the cost of Great Lakes cruises. The per-person cost of a cruise is going to be cheaper on a vessel with 4,000 passengers than one with just 200 passengers.

This is because the fixed costs, such as the cost of fuel, and crew are spread out over a larger number of people.

There are also more ways for a mega-ship to make extra money off its 4000 passengers through onboard spend, such as casino, spa, shore excursions, drinks packages, etc so they don’t need to charge as much upfront, but you’ll more likely spend more money on them

In contrast, a smaller Great Lakes cruise ship is going to have fewer opportunities to generate revenue from its passengers and as a result, the cost of the cruise is going to be higher.

Cargo Ship on St Lawrence Seaway
St Lawrence Seaway – Cargo Container

3. Higher Spec

Although the Great Lakes cruise ships are smaller they tend to be made to a higher spec than their ocean cruise counterparts.

This is because the Great Lakes are considered to be a premium cruising destination and as such, the cruise ships that ply their waters need to match this.

The small size of the ships also allows for a more personalized and intimate experience which many passengers are happy to pay extra for.

River cruising is generally more luxurious and, therefore, more expensive.

4. Less Competition

With only smaller vessels being able to access the Great Lakes, there is, therefore, less competition among the cruise lines.

There are only a handful of companies that operate Great Lakes cruises, whereas there are dozens of companies operating ocean cruises, and increased competition means that ocean cruise companies are constantly trying to undercut each other on price in order

However, when it comes to cruising the Great Lakes and fewer cruise companies competing against each other, there is less pressure to reduce prices and undercut one another.

5. Higher Crew-to-Passenger Cost Ratio

The crew-to-passenger ratio on Great Lakes cruise ships is also higher than on ocean-going vessels.

This is because the vessels are smaller and as a result, there are simply more crew members needed to provide the same level of service. 

Typically there might be 50 or 60 crew members working on a small Great Lakes cruise ship compared to around 400+ on a large ocean-going vessel.

Actually, on Great Lakes cruises the service is considered to be of a higher standard all round because there is more staff to take care of fewer people.

6. Higher Quality of Food

The quality of food on a Great Lakes cruise is also generally considered to be higher than on an ocean-going vessel.

This is because the smaller size of the vessel means that the kitchen staff is able to focus their attention on a selection of high-quality dishes, some of which may be cooked to order, rather than having to prepare up to 300 different dishes at meal times on a mega-ship that mass-produce food for hundreds or even thousands of passengers.

As a result, the cuisine is considered fresher and of a higher quality.

Of course, this comes at a cost reflected in the cruise’s overall price.

7. All Cabins Have Views

Another factor that contributes to the higher cost of Great Lakes cruises is that, because the ships are smaller, all cabins have a view.

There are no interior staterooms without a view of the outside and this is something that passengers are willing to pay a higher price for.

So not only will you be able to see the  Great Lakes from your cabin, but the scenery is also more varied and interesting than on ocean cruises where you might just be staring at the horizon for days on end.

Lake Superior
Lake Superior

8. More Included (Drinks, Excursions, Gratuities)

When you book a Great Lakes cruise, more is often included in the price than on an ocean-going vessel.

For example, gratuities are often included in the cost of the cruise, as are some shore excursions and even drinks packages.

So although the upfront cost of a Great Lakes cruise might be higher, you might find that you end up spending less money on board than you would on an ocean cruise.

9. Demographic

Great Lakes cruises are typically taken by older passengers who are willing to pay a higher price for a more intimate and luxurious experience.

In contrast, a higher percentage of ocean cruises are often taken by younger travelers who are looking for a more budget-friendly option, with the exception of the more expensive Disney Cruises.

Tips to Save Money On Your Great Lakes Cruise

There are various ways you can save some money on your Great Lakes cruise:

1. Look for discounts and deals. Cruise lines frequently offer discounts during the fall or early months of the year, so if you’re flexible with your travel dates, you may be able to save some money. You can also sometimes find deals on last-minute bookings.

2. Consider booking a room on a lower deck. The price of your room can vary depending on the deck level, so if you’re willing to sacrifice a few views and a little more activity and noise on your deck you may be able to save some money.

3. Choose a room that is closer to the center of the ship. Rooms that are closer to the edges of the ship tend to be more expensive, so if you don’t mind being in the middle of the action, you may be able to save some money, even if it is a little noisier, but Great Lakes cruises tend to be more subdued than rowdy anyway.

4. Be flexible with your travel dates. If you’re willing to be flexible with your travel dates, you may be able to find some cheaper fares if you travel during the spring or fall.

5. Travel during the off-season. Great Lakes cruises are usually less expensive during the off-season, so if you’re willing to travel during this time, you may be able to save some money.

6. Use a travel agent. If you use a travel agent who specializes in Great Lakes cruises, they may be able to help you find some great deals that you wouldn’t be able to find on your own.

7. Room Choice.  Rooms will be cheaper than suites and smaller rooms will be cheaper still.

Why Choose a Great Lakes Cruise?

Quite often the Great Lakes cruises are overlooked by many, possibly because they are in their own backyard for many and people generally look to travel to more exotic locations and foreign lands not necessarily what is on their doorstep.

There are a number of reasons why cruises on the Great Lakes are becoming increasingly popular.

The Great Lakes are the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth by total area and are made up of 5 lakes: Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie, and Ontario.

These lakes offer a variety of different landscapes and experiences, from the rugged coastline of Lake Superior to the more than 30,000 islands that make up Georgian Bay.  

The scenery is simply stunning, with beautiful mountain ranges mixed with lush forests and pristine lakes, which starkly contrast the other more industrial ports dotted along the coastlines.

In addition, Great Lakes cruises offer passengers the chance to visit some of North America’s most iconic cities, such as Chicago, Detroit, and Toronto.

But beyond that, cruising on the Great Lakes provides an opportunity to explore a side of North America that most people don’t get to see.

And, because the region is so vast, there are a number of different itineraries to choose from, meaning that there is a Great Lakes cruise to suit everyone.

The Lakes may look serene and calm, but in certain weather conditions, they can produce quite high waves. In one recorded instance its believed a rogue wave was responsible for the sinking of ship, the freight ship SS Edmund Fitzgerald back in 1958. Thankfully no cruise ships have sunk in the area and episodes like this are very rare.

You can see more about why the Great Lakes Cruises are becoming more popular in this video:

Best Cruise Lines For the Great Lakes

The main Great Lakes cruising companies are:

  • Viking Cruises which has the Viking Octantis cruise ship
  • Pearl Seas Cruises with its Pearl Mist cruise ship
  • America Queen Voyages has 2 vessels Ocean Navigator and Ocean Voyager.

Viking’s itineraries have more outdoor options within their itineraries.

Pearl Seas Cruises offers more small-town port visits.

American Queen Voyages favors the large city ports of call.

Frequently Asked Questions

When are the Cheapest Great Lakes Cruises?

The Great Lakes cruises are most popular and expensive in the warmer months of June, July, August, and September.

Cruise lines frequently offer discounts during the fall or early months of the sometimes referred to as the “wave season”.

If you leave booking until just a few months from the sail dates when cruise lines tend to offer sale prices the savings on these are often offset with higher costs if you need to combine with airfare travel and hotel acc accommodations prior to or after embarkation or disembarkation dates.

Therefore opting to travel outside of these months should be cheaper.   See what’s available in April, May, or October. 

Remember these will also be cooler months so bear that in mind when packing.


While Great Lakes cruises may be more expensive than some other types of cruises, there are ways to save money on your trip.

By traveling during the off-season, using a travel agent, and being careful about your room choice, you can get a great deal on a Great Lakes cruise.

And, of course, the Great Lakes offer a unique and beautiful cruising experience that is well worth the extra cost.

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